This intriguing region is rarely visited by travellers unless they're crossing into Vietnam, which is a shame because it’s home to utterly spectacular mountain scenery as well as some of Laos’ most compelling history. Base yourself in Phonsavan and you'll have access to one of Southeast Asia's most important prehistoric sites, the Plain of Jars, as well as the not-for-profit organisations, MAG and Lone Buffalo. Xam Neua provides another great setting to explore in the mountainous northeast, with the nearby Vieng Xai Caves creating a sobering reminder of the lengths Laotians went to during the American War.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
A reverential ambience and stillness echoes across the valleys and highlands of the Xiangkhoang Plateau, some 300 kilometres east of Luang Prabang. The green hills are covered with thousands of weather-worn stone cylinders, or jars, that have stood the test of time for over 2,000 years. The Plain of Jars is one of Southeast Asia's most significant prehistoric sites, but due to its out-of-the-way setting it's still rare to see many other visitors. There's no gate, no opening times, and no guard. The nearest town, Phonsavan, has a small hotel where you can stay overnight, allowing you to spend a full day here if you have time. Sunrise over the Plain as the early morning mist rises from the valley floor can be absolutely mesmerising.
If you travel this far east then you’re probably heading into Vietnam, but before you cross the border it's well worth stopping off for a night or two in Xam Neua. The surrounding mountains are nothing short of humbling, and feature one of the region's most fascinating remnants of the American War: the Vieng Xai Caves. This vast subterranean network was where the Pathet Lao hunkered down, and they served as protection for thousands of Laotian civilians against the constant barrage of US bombs. The filing cabinets, desks and military paraphernalia which remain in place provide eerie echoes of the caves’ history. Once in the open air again, you can clear your mind along a trekking trail through some of Laos' captivating mountain scenery.
It's impossible to visit Laos without feeling compelled to understand what the people went through during the American War. This is one of the world's most heavily bombed countries, and many unexploded bombs and mines remain buried in rural areas. The MAG (Mines Advisory Group) information centre in Phonsavan combines hard-hitting imagery and exhibits with positive messages about ongoing projects, while the Lone Buffalo centre helps children in rural Laos look towards a brighter future. Finding out more about their educational, sports and development programmes whilst visiting the northeast is an important way to show your support.
We feel confident asserting that the Nam Ou is one of the most stunning rivers you'll ever see. Life along its banks continues much the same way as it always has, with the reptile-green water flowing through sheer limestone gorges and forested valleys on its way to join the Mekong. Many local minority communities still depend upon the Nam Ou for irrigation and transportation, whilst larger riverside towns, like Muang Ngoi and Nong Khiaw, are becoming known for their rustic guest houses and riverside restaurants. Narrow in parts and mountainous in places, a slow boat journey on the Nam Ou can be an unexpectedly magical experience that’ll equal (or even surpass) any along the Mekong Delta.